White working class voters and the future of the Democratic party

I’ve been meaning to do a big, thoughtful post on this topic for almost a week now and I still haven’t gotten around to it because I keep reading interesting takes and thinking “oh, I need to incorporate that.”  Or else I think, damn, it’s going to take a while to write that post.

Last night we had a post-election panel discussion on campus and I basically went on an extended rant of what I’ve been thinking on the issue.  So, I just decided to basically come home and type up a version of what I said.  Apologies in advance for not being more coherent and organized, but here goes…

Okay, so what does the Republican Party have to offer the white working class? (the original title of my post in draft stage, in fact).  Cultural validation.  You are okay as you are.  You are not a bigot just because you are uncomfortable with the rapid cultural change surrounding gay marriage.  You are not racist because you give the benefit of the doubt to police.  You are not anti-Muslim just because you are afraid of terrorism.  You have the salt-of-the-earth real American values that the country was founded upon.  The coastal, urban elites are looking down on you.  They think you are stupid and backward.  They think they can tell you how you should live and what you should think.  Vote for us and reject all that condescending PC crap.

Hey, that sounds like a pretty good deal.  Cultural validation.  So, what do you get in exchange?  Tax cuts for rich people and less protection against businesses harming you, cheating you, and despoiling your land.  There’s your trade.  Of course, that’s not what they say.  In addition to cultural validation, you get economic fantasy– these tax cuts, regulation cuts, new trade deals, and immigration laws are going to give you a thriving community where you can have a good lifetime job without a college degree.  Yes, it is a fantasy, but it is fantasy spun by people who “get” you.

Now, Democrats absolutely have better answers for the economic issues.  But these are answers coming from condescending urban-coastal elites who think you are a know-nothing bigot.  And the Democrats’ answers (better education, vocational education, community college, job training and re-training, infrastructure, etc.) aren’t so easy.  And they aren’t so great– that robot is not giving you your job back and neither is that textile worker in Bangladesh.  1950’s America is not coming back.

Furthermore, Democrats have actually been winning on the social-cultural stuff.  Look at the enormous change on gay marriage in a short time.  Look at the fact that Donald Trump is called racist not for the N word or clear cases of inter-personal or business discrimination, but because he uses coded appeals about Black-on-Black crime and “law and order.”  Compare that to George Wallace’s racism.  And sure, life ain’t great for a Transgender person, but it’s surely a lot easier and more accepted than 20 years ago.  Democrats can win on this stuff.  Solving the problems of hurting communities in Canton, Ohio or Statesville, NC are a lot harder.

And, since Democrats can actually makes some progress here.  And since a lot of the liberal/coastal elites really do care more about these issues.  And since that’s where the money to support the Democratic party comes from, it’s not surprising that Democrats place a real emphasis on these issues.

But, there’s a real problem with that.  The amount of room on the political agenda is pretty close to zero sum.  I like to think of it as there only being so much political oxygen in the room to go around.  And if you are a political party and your attention (at least seems) to be primarily on issues of gay rights, transgender bathrooms, and police violence against Black communities, what is that you have to offer white working class voters throughout much of non-cosmopolitan America?  You may have very good and smart policy ideas, but it is clear to these voters that this is not where your energy is.

If you’ve been a long-time reader, you know that I don’t begrudge gays their increased rights, etc., and you sure know how much I care about better criminal justice policies and police accountability, but you also know that I’ve been frustrated at how their just doesn’t seem to have been enough energy on policies to create greater economic opportunities for Americans without college degrees.

So, the Democratic Party needs to find a way forward on this.  What it could really use is it’s own version of Newt Gingrich of the early 1990’s.  Gingrich had a broad strategic vision for how to make the Republicans the majority party and he worked broadly and tirelessly (and sometimes, underhandedly) towards that goal.  That’s what Democrats need.  And, no, the Democrats do not need to “win” the white working class to make that happen.  But they need to not get killed among the white working class.  And I think a significant part of that is emphasizing a strong, coherent vision, that let’s these voters know that, okay, maybe Republicans have your back on some of this cultural values stuff (the Democrats will not and should not play to racial resentment, xenophobia, etc.), but we’ve got your back on an economic vision for improving your opportunities and your communities.

Finally, let’s add that there is a very real element of racial resentment and xenophobia motivating some white working class voters (and some white college-educated voters).  Some of them may be ungettable “deplorables.”  But, this is far from all white working class voters.  Furthermore, there’s surely a decent segment that may be more or less motivated by these baser motives depending upon the political context.  And when that context is a Democratic message that gives them economic hope, rather than one of cultural condescension, the baser motives will be far less relevant.

Okay, hope that made some sense.  (And this ended up being link free, but probably the best and most influential take I recall right now is this great one from Robert Kuttner.) I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about this and would particularly value thoughts, feedback, etc.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

19 Responses to White working class voters and the future of the Democratic party

  1. Damon Circosta says:

    Spot on.


  2. Stefan says:

    Excellent analysis. Kuttner’s piece reminds me of George Packer’s excellent book–The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America–tracing the great change in American from 1978 to 2012. As Packer states, “If you were born around 1960 or later,you have spent your entire adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding.” I was born much earlier, but I have spent the period teaching young adults and have seen the effects of the unwinding on their lives and aspirations.

  3. Jon K says:

    “The coastal, urban elites are looking down on you. They think you are stupid and backward. They think they can tell you how you should live and what you should think. Vote for us and reject all that condescending PC crap.”

    This is a huge part of the problem that I see. Democrats have basically written off rural white working class voters. It’s like they pretend they don’t live in this country and their views aren’t worth consideration. There are a ton of white working class voters whose lives are not getting better. Their jobs are being replaced by automation and globalization. There has been no effort to reach out to these people and figure out how they are going to be able to provide for their families with jobs that are better than 10 bucks an hour service jobs. This fuels the fear of change and resentment towards perceived special treatment for the Democrats favorite groups.

    Like you said, it is fine for liberals to be concerned with gay rights and issues in urban centers. Just realize that is only a problem to a small segment of the population in this country. Only focusing on those problems, while rural Americans continue to see their economic situation becomes bleaker, will continue to fuel the divide in this country.

    Liberals need to adjust their aditude towards white working class voters. Instead of writing them off, liberals should make an effort to acknowledge that these people are hurting. They should deploy some of that passion and intellectual policy energy towards helping to fix the unaddressed problems facing 40% of the people living in this country. As they have made clear, their lives matter.

  4. Heather says:

    And it is not just white rural folks losing their jobs. Tech companies have been having folks from India come over, be trained by US workers, then go back to India to do the job while the US worker gets laid off and then fights to land a Hope Depot job. This has been going on for decades.

    When Clinton wore a diamond necklace to the debate against Sanders in Flint, MI–one of the most economically destroyed cities in the US, I thought to myself, she doesn’t get it at ALL and is going to lose.

  5. Mike in Chapel Hill says:

    Thanks, Steve. I have been having internal rants about the same thing. After visiting relatives and friends out in the Dakotas in October I can tell you that a lot of non-racist/non-gay-bashing people are tired of being told that their concerns about crime, jobs, and immigration make them racist etc. Example: town of 10,000 has seen an influx of spanish-speaking laborors working in meat plants. Crime has gone up, specific types of crime that didn’t occur before, the police blotters are full of Hispanic surnames. And there are the occasional raids that find undocumented workers. This is not correlation. This is what is really happening. What has the Democratic Party’s and liberals’ response been to these problem? “You’re racist, and you need to be more tolerant and also spend more of your scarce tax dollars giving these folks money for food, health care, school seats, and also spend more on police and maybe lock your doors and don’t go to that part of town. And, oh yeah, did we mention that you’re a horrible racist for complaining about all of this?”
    It certainly appears to the life-long citizens that liberals are more concerned about protecting the feelings of illegal immigrants than they are in actually addressing the problem. And yes, I wrote “illegal immigrant” because that is what is it, and inventing euphemisms for terms that make liberals squeamish doesn’t deal with the problem and will continue to lose elections.

  6. itchy says:

    OK, here’s my pushback, and maybe this is petty, but …

    Rural whites look down on “coastal elites” just as much as coastal elites look down on rural whites. They think liberals are “stupid and backward.”

    And as the Republican Party slowly loses on many fronts of the culture war, it doesn’t wring its hands and think “how can we connect” with educated liberals?

    It gets angry and it stokes fear — and it wins elections.

    So if you’re going to copy the playbook of the winning team, the prescription is not unity and understanding — it’s anger and fear.

    (And yes, I hope I’m wrong.)

    • Steve Greene says:

      Oh, sure, condescension goes both ways, but I do think there’s a condescension asymmetry. And it has important political implications.

      • itchy says:

        I think the only thing asymmetrical is that liberals tend to look on the rural whites with pity, while the rural whites look on the liberals with contempt.

      • Steve Greene says:

        You know what– this is actually an empirical question that begs for some good data. But I don’t know that such data is out there. There’s clearly a need, though.

  7. R. Jenrette says:

    I nominate Elizabeth Warren to be the Democratic version of Newt Gingrich. Citizens see her as a defender of John Q Public as they do Bernie Sanders. She has the power and ability to energize all Democrats. She has a lot of cred as a champion of the average citizen against the oligarchy who are trying to finalize the purchase of our government,

    • R. Jenrette says:

      PS Things might have been quite different if Elizabeth Warren had been named to be the VP in this election. She can energize that base that is now protesting the Trump presidency and what it means for America.

  8. Mika says:

    It makes sense. Positive thing is that Democrats have better answers for the economic issues. The negatives are that the answers are coming from elites and that the answers aren’t so easy. Changing the image of the party might be more difficult than formulating the answers so that they seem easy. I think I’ve seen one version of Contract with America written to one page. I once went to Clinton’s webpage to see what it was like. I opened the subpage “Issues” and there was too much stuff. I quit. Voters aren’t policy wonks. They don’t want details, they want hope. Maybe the Democratic party’s image changes when it gives hope to voters. That might be easy after few years of Trump administration.

  9. rgbact says:

    You didn’t really touch on immigration. The Democrat Party is the party of immigrants and non white people. It was what was going to make them send the GOP to the “dustbin of history”. Course, I’ve been predicting that eventually downscale whites would notice this and start voting as a bloc, just like minorities do. Its taken awhile. but now its here with Trump. So,I don’t see how Democrats can make cultural condescension and globalism into an appealing message for working class whites. Theres not really even an opposing view allowed within the party on those issues..

  10. itchy says:

    It’s still hard to get past the idea that Trump just won by doing exactly the opposite of what you’re proposing. He took advantage of anger and fear and contempt of the other side. He certainly didn’t do it by laying out economic policies — that would be Mitt Romney, the 2012 loser.

    I maintain that the supporters you’re addressing (which are many but not all Trump supporters) are every bit as condescending to liberal “elites” — because I come from them. They are my family back home. They have immediate, knee-jerk disdain for anything that appears liberal. They aren’t (all) blatantly racist — and they might have individual friends who are black, Latino — but they have no use for any program specifically designed to help minorities. They view those programs as taking away from them.

    The idea that rural America is “real” America is condescending. That whites and Christians are the only true Americans. That the only way to show your patriotism is to own a gun and wave a flag. That political correctness is only about being “correct” and not a statement of moral right.

    This is all condescension.

    To me, it’s condescending to dismiss it just because it’s plain and simple and not as sophisticated as our “educated” condescension.

    • itchy says:

      And, by the way, I realize and apologize that my reaction isn’t just to this post but also to all the post-election writing I’ve seen on the “maybe we’re too condescending” premise.

      My dictionary defines condescension as “an attitude of patronizing superiority.” I feel like too many of these columns come too close to “therefore, our position is not superior.”

      I might strive to remove the “patronizing” part, but in my opinion, my position absolutely is superior.

      • Steve Greene says:

        I think your position is superior, too. And, I think you make a very good case that the attitudes of rural America are condescending as well. That said, there is absolutely a problem that Democrats cannot seem to get through to white working class voters despite having better policies for these voters. So, maybe we’ll all continue to condescend to each other, but wwc voters would be far more willing to overlook this cultural condescension if they felt that Democrats emphasized an economic vision for them. Urban Republicans clearly overlook the opposite cultural condescension because of a Republican economic vision they agree with.

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